Home | Comment & Analysis    Sunday 17 April 2016

The White Army and mythology in South Sudan political violence

separation
increase
decrease
separation
separation

By Jacob Chol,

One of the main drivers of political violence in South Sudan is the local belief in traditional magical powers. Notably, the White Army, a communal Nuer ethnic-based militia known locally as Jiech Mabor, emerged in the early 1990s with empirical links to the spiritual mythology prevalent in South Sudan politics. A major aspect of this spiritual mythology was the notion that Dr. Riek Machar, South Sudan’s erstwhile deputy leader was a messiah who could bring spiritual and political liberation to the Nuer when he is the country president. Although empirical overreaching demonstrated it to be false, this belief has animated Nuer participation in South Sudan’s recent civil conflict. Unfortunately, outside analysts have largely ignored this element of the conflict.

The literature on communal militias argues that the existence of White Army dates to as early as the late 1980s. The White Army is a predominantly Nuer youth outfit. This traditional militia is drawn from three sub- groups of Nuer ethnic people, namely the Lou in the south, the Jikany and Gawaar in the east, and the Bul in the north. These three Nuer sub-groups reside in the northern part of the Unity region, Upper Nile region, and eastern part of Jonglei State in South Sudan.

Like other non-state armed actors in South Sudan, the White Army’s primary purpose is to protect the community against external threats and to defend property and livestock (Adeba 2015). In fact, the White Army first emerged as the protectors of cattle. Cattle play an extremely important role in the life of the agro-pastoralist Nuer. Cattle ownership is a source of status, fertility, health, and general prosperity. Cattle are also the principal medium through which social ties are created and conduit through which new alliances with outsiders is forged (Hutchinson 2012).

Groups akin to the White Army have long been common in many African pastoralist societies. For example, among the Dinka, the traditional militia group is called Gelweng; among the Otuho in Eastern Equatoria, the defense youth group is called the Monyimiji; and amongst the Cholo, the youth vigilante group is known as Akwelek Grassroots Defense Force. In response to the South Sudan state’s inability to provide security, however, new groups have emerged. For instance, Azande militants created? the Arrow Boys in response to the activities of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army in Western Equatoria State (Adeba 2015) in 2014. Amongst the Bor Dinka, an armed group called the Bor Panda Youth has emerged and was implicated in the killing of Nuer internally displaced persons (IDPs) under United Nations protection in April 2014 (Ibid). Moreover, a notorious group called the Maaban Defense Force became known to the world in August 2014 when it killed six Nuer aid workers, forcing aid organizations to halt activities in Maaban County of Upper Nile State.

These groups are typically transitory in nature, tribally based, defensive in orientation, and lacking any ideology or long-term objectives. The White Army is an exception, however, having played an active part in Sudan’s second civil war in 1983-2005. While similar armed groups remained under community control, the White Army became an independent entity that was sometimes destructive to the community from which it originated (Young 2007). Smearing their faces with white ash to protect themselves from bugs, members of the group presented a fearsome aspect to both their enemies and their fellow Nuer.

The 1991 split of Machar from the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), led by Dr. John Garang, saw an estimated 30,000 Nuer youth mobilized and ordered to attack the Dinka of Bor, the area from which Garang hailed. The aim of the attack may have been to expose Garang as a “weak leader,” one who could not protect his own backyard. The attack on Bor was devastating in scope and ferocity: villages were razed; male captives were disemboweled; and women were raped, shot, or burned alive (Peterson 2001). Human rights organizations estimated that 5,000 people were massacred.

This fratricide cost Machar his credibility among South Sudanese, in addition to cementing the reputation of the White Army as merciless killers (Hutchinson 2012). Machar’s White Army attack was met with fierce vengeance, as Garang’s Dinka soldiers executed many Nuer of Gajaak sub tribe. Garang’s faction retaliated with force and summarily executed all Nuer they captured (Peterson 2001). Near Bor, one group of 19 Nuer men were tied up in a cattle shed and speared to death (Amnesty International 2000).

Yet the interesting question is what motivated a large number of young Nuer militants, originally defenders of cattle, to fight for a political cause on behalf of leading politicians. Long before the current civil war, studies demonstrated that the White Army relied on the interpretation of prophets and medicine men in their sojourns of both bravery and looting. These Nuer prophets were revered for their role in blessing barren women, healing, and settling disputes. While preaching peace, however, the “main social function of the leading [Nuer] prophets in the past was to direct cattle raids on the Dinka and fighting against various foreigners who troubled the Nuer” (Mbiti 1990: 185). Evans-Pritchard described the prophets as individuals possessed by spirits and having charismatic powers. When these prophets spoke, they spoke in the name of the divinities that possessed them. As such, “what the prophet says and what the spirit says are all mixed up together, the two being interspersed together in such a manner that they cannot be separated” (Evans- Pritchard 1956: 45). Hutchinson (1996) argues that the White Army united under the powerful prophet, Wuornyang Gatakek, who drew heavily on the legacy of an earlier prophet, Ngundeng Bong. Bong lived between 1830 and 1906, and prophesized a fierce battle between the Nuer and the Dinka, in which the latter would be conquered. According to the prophecy, drums would sound, spears would be sharpened, and the Nuer would be mobilized for the battle by a messiah from the village of Nasir (Scroggins 2002). Other accounts of the prophecy describe the messiah as being left-handed, unmarked by tribal scars in the forehead and gap-teethed; the prophecy also indicated that he would marry a white woman (Adeba 2015).

With his headquarters in Nasir, Machar perfectly fit the profile of the messiah to be: he was left-handed, unmarked, gap-toothed, and married to a white British aid worker, Emma McCune. Although Machar eschewed the messiah label, he did nothing to dispel the ancient fable. Machar’s calls for President Salva Kiir to step down in 2014 confirmed his answer to prophetic calls (Aher 2014). Machar received prophetic Dang, the magical rod once carried and, with disputations, used positively by prophet Ngundeng Bong against the British government in 2009. It is alleged that Machar ran away with Dang (rod) on the fateful night of December 15th 2013, as this is un-separable from his life. Taking over Ngundeng’s role, Wuornyang prepared and blessed Jiech Mabor, or the White Army, for the battle, buttressed by the use of Nuer religious symbolism (Adeba 2015).

After the death of Ngundeng and Wuornyang, a young prophet emerged. Dak Kueth, in December 2014, mobilized over 25,000 White Armies that captured Bor, baptized it as Ngungdeng city, en-routed to Juba before the government repulsed the offensive attack and took over Bor. The affair has been motivated by spiritual mythology.

As Dr. Riek Machar returns as the 1st vice president designated for TGoNU, he should learn from this spiritual mythology and join hands in-trust with president Salva Kiir and other stakeholders to implement the peace deal in later and spirit. Nonetheless, if out siders are going to play a role in halting any South Sudan political conflict and violence related to Dr. Machar, they must recognize this aspect of spiritual mythology.

Mr. Chol is a Senior Reader of Political Science, University of Juba. He can be reached via dutsenior@yahoo.com



The views expressed in the 'Comment and Analysis' section are solely the opinions of the writers. The veracity of any claims made are the responsibility of the author not Sudan Tribune.

If you want to submit an opinion piece or an analysis please email it to comment@sudantribune.com

Sudan Tribune reserves the right to edit articles before publication. Please include your full name, relevant personal information and political affiliations.
Comments on the Sudan Tribune website must abide by the following rules. Contravention of these rules will lead to the user losing their Sudan Tribune account with immediate effect.

- No inciting violence
- No inappropriate or offensive language
- No racism, tribalism or sectarianism
- No inappropriate or derogatory remarks
- No deviation from the topic of the article
- No advertising, spamming or links
- No incomprehensible comments

Due to the unprecedented amount of racist and offensive language on the site, Sudan Tribune tries to vet all comments on the site.

There is now also a limit of 400 words per comment. If you want to express yourself in more detail than this allows, please e-mail your comment as an article to comment@sudantribune.com

Kind regards,

The Sudan Tribune editorial team.


The following ads are provided by Google. SudanTribune has no authority on it.


s
Sudan Tribune

Promote your Page too

Latest Comments & Analysis


ARCSS and HLRF: last or lost chance for peace in South Sudan? 2017-12-14 05:02:15 By James Okuk “Tell people in power that something they tried didn’t work as expected” – Peter Ross. “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation” – Edmund (...)

Response to Bona Malual statements on Abyei 2017-12-11 20:24:24 By Hon Arop Madut Arop As I was reading the last proof of my new book on the Ngok Dinka history, which is currently with the printers, somebody sent me a recorded voice message purportedly given (...)

Is Jieng Council of Elders responsible for South Sudan crisis? 2017-12-10 17:59:57 By Samuel Maker Amuor Silence means acceptance! It takes less than a minute for one to come across Jieng council of elders’ meddle on national affairs as they claim. Either through social media (...)


MORE






Latest Press Releases


South Sudanese rights group call to release political detainees 2017-12-10 07:50:31 THE INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS DAY: 10 DECEMBER 2017: SSHURSA CALLS ON ALL TO ACTION FOR SOUTH SUDANESE The 10 December usually marks the international human rights day. SSHURSA notes with (...)

Reactions to government agencies’ conspiracy against Greater Bor community 2017-10-08 07:54:31 By Manyok Abraham Thuch & Kuch Kuol Deng A monkey business or a donkey business in the government of the republic of South Sudan against the citizens is unacceptable. Therefore, we as youth (...)

Amnesty calls to release Nubian activists detained over protest for cultural rights 2017-09-12 20:47:54 AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL PRESS RELEASE 12 September 2017 Egypt: Release 24 Nubian activists detained after protest calling for respect of their cultural rights Egyptian authorities should (...)


MORE

Copyright © 2003-2017 SudanTribune - All rights reserved.